As I write this, it’s 86 degrees outside. Eighty-six degrees. And I’m in here, writing.
I’ve said before that my listening patterns are dictated by the weather, and that statement is backed up by the records I’ve been playing a lot these last few weeks. Right now, the music I’m listening to is warm and melodic—it’s a rush, a breeze, a bright blast of light and pollen and possibility. That’s all you’ll find in this month’s “Pirate Guide”—the “Sonic Boom” feature wherein I offer brief reviews of a host of new records—because that has dominated my playlist, my iPod, my life. That’s all I want to hear. I can’t stay inside anymore. I need to put on my headphones, a T-shirt, my sunglasses, get outside, get an iced coffee, go for a walk, watch the doors and windows of my neighborhood open, watch the kids on their skateboards and the girls in their short skirts and the baseball on the sidewalks, the parks. I want my music to be played as loud as it can be played, maybe even a little louder than that.
I’ve heard people say that MGMT’s second album is “divisive” or “difficult,” and I guess I get where they’re coming from: The band’s debut featured a sound and style well suited to, I dunno, Urban Outfitters or Gossip Girl or Justice remixes or whatever. And that album was both very popular and terrific. “So why didn’t they do that again?” is the question. “Only better, or more?” It’s not an unfair response to the music—Congratulations does feel like a challenge made to fans (its insanely hideous cover art alone suggests as much), and such challenges can feel like pretensions. And while lots of great music is made by pretentious jerks, no one ever listened to MGMT because they were cool or highbrow or artsy—people listened to MGMT because they made really fun alternative pop. Remember how The Killers sounded like Duran Duran on their first record, and then like Bruce Springsteen on their second record, and people were like, “Huh?” More or less the same thing here (with totally different artistic blueprints and markedly more successful results). In fact, to these ears, Congratulations sounds like a different band altogether, with different influences and ideas and goals. It also sounds like a better band. It sounds like some great lost treasure of psychedelic pop; I keep coming back to Love’s Forever Changes as my reference point, and the similarities are numerous, from the actual sound of the music to the construction of the songs to the tight, perfect focus of the record as a whole. [8/10]
I’d never heard of Plants and Animals when La La Land la la landed on my desk, and I didn’t know anything about the band when I started listening to the record. That’s a deep hole in which to start when you’re trying to win me over—which is my own failing, I admit, not a failing of any musician trying to catch my ear—so the fact that La La Land has spent the last few weeks in heavy rotation on my iPod speaks to how excellent the album really is. Naturally, I’ve learned a lot about the group since my first spin of their record: Turns out they’re a three-piece ensemble from Montreal; La La Land is their second full-length recording; and they once shared a violinist with the Arcade Fire. Does that help you to understand or contextualize the group? If I knew that going in, I’d probably kind of…ignore them. But I’m so glad I didn’t. La La Land is rich with sonic layers and musical curiosity; it’s beautiful, bountiful, celebratory, mournful, weird and catchy as a fever. I hear lots of Talking Heads here—check the track called “American Idol” for the most obvious evidence of this—but it’s not really a post-punk record. There is great tenderness here; the music has deep roots, and vivid colors, and overwhelming grace, and those are qualities too rarely found in post-punk music, or in any music (or in life, for that matter). [8/10]
As I mentioned in my review of Les Discrets’ Septembre et Ses Dernières Pensées, included in last month’s installment of this feature, much of the best black metal being made right now is not coming out of Norway, the birthplace of black metal. As I also mentioned, much of the best black metal being made right now doesn’t necessarily sound a whole lot like black metal. Les Discrets and Alcest are often tied to one another—both bands are from France; both bands have released music on the same label (Europe’s Prophecy Records); both bands were featured on the flip side of the other on an essential 2009 split EP; both bands’ masterminds—Neige (of Alcest) and Fursey (of Les Discrets)—have worked and toured together; and both bands’ new LPs are being released the same day (April 20). Of the two, Alcest are the better-known act, as Neige has also played with folky French black metal purists Peste Noire, and released music as Amesoeurs (whose self-titled 2009 LP was one of the best albums released in any genre last year). Ecailles De Lune is the second full-length Neige has released with Alcest—the first being 2007’s stunning and essential Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde—and if you didn’t already know Alcest, or Neige, or didn’t think he was one of the most exciting minds in music today, this should change all that. Alcest feature elements of quote-unquote black metal—for instance, Neige occasionally sings in the scratchy, hissy vocals for which the genre is known, and there are blast beats in parts of these songs, but that’s kind of where the aesthetic similarities end. This is dreamy, lush music, full of melody and softness and wonder. Guitars spider and cascade and sigh; vocals echo like footsteps in an empty cathedral. If anything, Ecailles resembles black metal most in its visceral connection to nature—but where traditional black metal reflects darkness and wolves and brutal, harsh Norwegian winters, Alcest sound like the French countryside, like warm nights spent outdoors, like the spring itself: offering endless, impossible promises, begging to be explored. [9/10]